Pathology of colours by Dannie Abse

I know the colour rose, and it is lovely,

but not when it ripens in a tumour;

and healing greens, leaves and grass, so springlike,

in limbs that fester are not springlike.

 

I have seen red-blue tinged with hirsute mauve

in the plum-skin face of a suicide.

I have seen white, china white almost, stare

from behind the smashed windscreen of a car.

 

And the criminal, multi-coloured flash

of an H-bomb is no more beautiful

than an autopsy when the belly’s opened –

to show cathedral windows never opened.

 

So in the simple blessing of a rainbow,

in the bevelled edge of a sunlit mirror,

I have seen, visible, Death’s artifact

like a soldier’s ribbon on a tunic tacked.

 

by Dannie Abse

from a small desperation (1968)

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‘Twilight was turning to darkness outside…’ by Vladislav Khodasevich

Twilight was turning to darkness outside.

Under the eaves a window banged wide.

 

A curtain was lifted, a light briefly shone,

a swift shadow fell down the wall and was gone.

 

Happy the man who falls head first to death:

at least for a moment his viewpoint is fresh.

 

by Владислав Фелицианович Ходасевич (Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich)

(1922)

translated by Michael Frayn

‘To read only children’s tales…’ by Osip Mandelstam

To read only children’s tales

and look through a child’s eye;

to rise from grief and wave

big things goodbye.

 

Life has tired me to death;

life has no more to offer.

But I love my poor earth

since I know no other.

 

I swung in a faraway garden

on a plain plank swing;

I remember tall dark firs

in a feverish blur.

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1908)

translated by Robert Chandler

Funeral by R. S. Thomas

They stand about conversing

In dark clumps, less beautiful than trees.

What have they come here to mourn?

There was a death, yes; but death’s brother,

Sin, is of more importance.

Shabbily the teeth gleam,

Sharpening themselves on reputations

That were firm once. On the cheap coffin

The earth falls more cleanly than tears.

What are these red faces for?

This incidence of pious catarrh

At the grave’s edge? He has returned

Where he belongs; this is acknowledged

By all but the lonely few

Making amends for the heart’s coldness

He had from them, grudging a little

The simple splendour of the wreath

Of words the church lays on him.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from The Bread of Truth (1963)

Jerusalem by R. S. Thomas

A city – its name

keeps it intact. Don’t

touch it. Let the muezzin’s

cry, the blood call

 

of the Christian, the wind

from sources desiccated

as the spirit drift over

its scorched walls. Time

 

devourer of its children

chokes here on the fact

it is in high places love

condescends to be put to death.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)

Death of a Poet by Anna Akhmatova

The unrepeatable voice won’t speak again,

Died yesterday and quit us, the talker with groves.

Or into gentlest rain of which he sang.

And all the flowers that grew only in this world

Came into bloom to meet his death.

And straightway it’s grown quiet on the planet

That bears a name so modest… Earth.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1960)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun fact: The poem refers to the death of Boris Pasternak (29 January 1890 – 30 May 1960).

Dances of Death [Excerpt] by Alexander Blok

Night, lantern, side street, drugstore,

a mindless, pallid light.

Live on for twenty years or more –

it’ll be the same; there’s no way out.

 

Try being reborn – start life anew.

All’s still as boring and banal.

Lantern, side street, drugstore, a few

shivering ripples on the canal.

 

by Александр Александрович Блок (Alexander Alexandrovich Blok)

(1912)

translated by Robert Chandler